I received a letter during the week from a Kilkenny reader following a recent documentary on Radio Kilkenny concerning the Luggacurran evictions. He asked for information about Fr. John Maher who at the time of the evictions was one of the Catholic curates in Luggacurran. Maher was the acknowledged leader of the Plan of Campaign in the area which culminated in the series of evictions which started on 22nd March, 1887 and finally ended in June 1889. He was born in Ballyoughan, Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow and entered St. Patrick’s College in Carlow where he was ordained in 1880. He spent time as a curate in Stradbally, Hacketstown and Clonmore before arriving in Luggacurran in or about May 1886. Around the same time Lord Lansdowne who was the Landlord of vast tracts of land in Luggacurran, visited his County Kerry Estates just outside Kenmare. The small holdings in Kerry consisted of poor land, mountainous for the most part, and Lansdowne offered rent abatements of upwards of thirty-five per cent to his Kerry tenants. News of this soon reached his tenants in Luggacurran who demanded similar terms which were refused. The stage was then set for what would eventually be known throughout Ireland as the Luggacurran Evictions.
The principal tenants on the Lansdowne Estate in Luggacurran were John William Dunne and Denis Kilbride who between them held over 2,100 acres. Both had as sub-tenants small farmers who held their lands from Dunne or Kilbride rather than from Lansdowne. The Plan of Campaign had been initiated in Ireland in October 1886 when it was proposed that where a landlord refused rent reductions tenants would offer rents they considered to be fair. On these being refused by the Landlord the rents would go into an “Estate Fund” for the support of evicted tenants.
It is not certain who initiated the Plan of Campaign in Luggacurran but Fr. Maher’s leadership through the campaign would lead one to believe that he was the person responsible. His brother, Fr. William Maher, was also a priest in the Kildare and Leighlin diocese and he had successfully operated the Plan of Campaign in his own parish. It is quite likely that encouraged by this Fr. John Maher embarked on a course of action which would have far reaching consequences for the families in the Luggacurran area.
Folk memories of Fr. Maher passed down to the present generation relate how the curate preached the Plan of Campaign from the altar every Sunday, encouraging the tenant farmers to withhold their rents from Lord Lansdowne. The inevitable happened. On Tuesday morning, 22nd March 1887 the emergency men, as the evicting party were called, travelled to Denis Kilbride’s house in Luggacurran. They carried with them ladders, crow bars and hatchets. In anticipation of his eviction local men had some time earlier removed all of Kilbride’s hay from his haggards and brought them to a safe place. William O’Brien, one of Parnell’s leading Lieutenants, arrived in Luggacurran the morning of 22nd March when he was presented with an address of welcome by a deputation from Athy’s Branch of the Irish National League. The deputation included Rev. John Staples, Catholic Curate of St. Michael’s, Athy who as Vice President of the League read the address which concluded with the words :- “May your efforts and eloquent words sound the knell of Landlordism on the Lansdowne Estates of Luggacurran today.” O’Brien and those assembled to greet him then walked towards Kilbride’s house to await the arrival of the emergency men. When the crow bar crew arrived accompanied by a large force of policemen they immediately set about attempting to gain entry to Kilbride’s house. Their early efforts were thwarted by the occupants who had barricaded every door and window. Entry was eventually made through the roof and at about 3.00 o’clock in the afternoon after almost four hours work the first of Lord Lansdowne’s tenants was evicted. On completion of the eviction the emergency men withdrew, leaving some of their numbers and a number of policemen to guard Kilbride’s house. Some of the policemen returned to Luggacurran village while the greater number of them marched back to Athy. Later that day a large gathering of Luggacurran folk was addressed by William O’Brien while he stood on the ditch adjoining Kilbride’s Avenue. The speaker was introduced by a Fr. John Maher who asserted that the Luggacurran tenants were determined to win the fight with Lord Lansdowne.
On the following day nine families, the heads of which were either labourers or sub-tenants to Denis Kilbride, were evicted from their holdings. Those evicted on that second day included Thomas Kelly, who occupied the gate lodge at the entrance to the avenue leading to Kilbride’s residence. Kelly, his wife and three children, the eldest eight years, the youngest two years were put out of their house with minimum force.
The emergency men then proceeded to the cottage of John Ryan, a married labourer with seven children who were evicted without resistance. All the while a large group of people watched in silence as their neighbours were forced from their homes. Others evicted that day were Michael Lawler, his wife and four children, the youngest being one month old; Thomas Reddy, his wife and five children and two of Reddy’s relatives aged eighty-five and eighty-three years. Ed Conroy, a sub-tenant of Kilbrides was evicted with his wife and four children, the youngest only five months, and was soon to be joined on the side of the road by Michael Cranny, his wife and thirteen children, and Thomas Rigney, his wife and three children.
The evictions continued until 30th April, 1887 when forty families had been forced from their homes for failing to pay Lord Lansdowne’s rent. Two tenant farmers due for eviction paid their rent, an action which caused considerable bad feeling in the Luggacurran area, especially when it was realised that the men who were brothers were among the first to join the Plan of Campaign. Fr. Maher was particularly vociferous in his condemnation of anyone who broke ranks with the campaigners and Hurlbert in his book “Ireland Under Coercion” quoted Fr. Maher as saying :- “They must all stand or fall together”.
Fr. Maher’s activities resulted in his arrest and subsequent imprisonment in Kilkenny Gaol in May 1889 for a speech delivered by him in Luggacurran in support of the Plan of Campaign. He was released from Gaol after serving one month and on his journey back to Luggacurran was met by welcoming committees at Kilkenny and Carlow. While he was in Kilkenny Gaol the evictions resumed after a lapse of nearly two years. Tuesday, 28th May 1889 saw the emergency men back in Luggacurran and when the Luggacurran evictions ended later that year the local attitude to Fr. John Maher had changed dramatically. The disillusioned campaigners turned against him and when he left Luggacurran in June 1881 for Monasterevin Parish it is claimed that he was booed by those he had once lead in the fight against Landlordism. He was later appointed Parish Priest of Clonasleigh where he lived from 1903 to 1911. He died in Dublin in January 1916.